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TALKING JAPANESE & WESTERN INSTRUMENTATION WITH JEROME LEROY
- 30 Apr
Originally from Paris, composer, orchestrator, and producer Jérôme Leroy writes and produces for film, television, and video games. Jérôme founded Berklee College of Music’s first student-run classical orchestra and, post-graduation, he moved to Los Angeles, to work with, and learn from many established film composers such as John Frizzell and William Ross.
As a score producer and orchestrator, Jérôme has more than 40 film credits. His new album of orchestral tracks, Shifting Perspectives, features authentic Japanese instruments including kotos, flutes and shakuhachi. We caught up with Jérôme to find out about the challenges of bringing together Japanese and Western instrumentation, and his favourite films to score.
How did you get started in music?
I come from a musical family, in the sense that my parents felt it was important for each of their children to play an instrument. They also listened to a lot of classical music — at home, in the car, on vacation... I started learning the piano when I was 6 years old, and it didn’t take long until I became interested in writing music (as an interesting nugget, I actually incorporated the very first melody I ever wrote into one of the tracks from Shifting Perspectives!).
I furthered my musical education by taking classes at the Paris Conservatory, then attending a high-school with a strong music curriculum, and finally moving to Boston to study at Berklee College of Music, majoring in Film Scoring.
What drew you to orchestral music?
My parents’ listening habits favoured the orchestral repertoire, and, as a kid, it was the music that created the most enduring emotions in me. That may explain why, when I saw the trailer for Jurassic Park, John Williams’ music struck an immediate and indelible chord. Film music, in all its orchestral glory — big, lush, daring, exciting, powerful — was here to stay for good!
Recording Shifting Perspectives at Abbey Road Studios
You write for films, TV and video games – do you have a favourite media to write for?
Each media has its own upsides, but, in general, I feel that the longer the form, the more interesting it gets, as it allows for more musical development. It’s a wide spectrum, obviously: short films require you to distil the music down to its purest essence, and there’s something interesting about that process; and at the other end, a TV show has you work in a set palette for many years (especially if the show is successful), and the pleasure comes from finding new ways to keep it fresh.
That’s what interests me in working with Audio Network — the possibility to write not just one track, but a full album where you can explore a genre and a set aesthetic, while at the same time being constrained enough that you have to make sure the music never gets too dull or too repetitive. In general, my favourite projects are the ones that give me space to push myself creatively!
Which medium do you find the most challenging to write for, and why?
For me, challenges come less from the media I’m being asked to write to, and more with the genre I’m being expected to write in. I’m naturally more comfortable writing for acoustic instruments in a traditional manner than I am exploring synthesizers, software plug-ins and other electronic wizardry… I don’t dislike those, per se, and often use them in my work, but before I take on a project, I always ensure the creative leads and myself share similar aesthetics and musical expectations.
Which of the films that you’ve composed a score for did you enjoy watching the final cut of the most?
I’m going to go with the third Harold & Kumar film (A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas), for which I wrote additional music. This was one of my first really big gigs as additional composer, and working on it was a fantastic experience. It required a huge amount of work and being able to write in a host of different genres — from stereotypical action to cute and quirky to cliché music for the bad guys.
That was a great learning time — but the kicker is that the movie is absolutely hilarious (if you have my kind of humour, at least). So after all that work, watching it in the theatres with all my friends was a total blast.
Your new album, Shifting Perspectives, uses lots of authentic Japanese instruments – what drew you to them and can you tell us about some of the players you collaborated with?
I’ve been fascinated by Japanese culture for more than 25 years, so this album was very close to my heart. I’ve enjoyed so much of Japan’s creative output over the years (mangas, animes, films, TV shows, video games...) that it was essential to me that this album be mindful and respectful of the uniqueness of Japanese’s traditions.
I’ve researched their instruments in depth to find ways to incorporate their particular qualities in my writing, spending a significant amount of time learning about how to write for them. This culminated in reaching out to New York-based contractor Tomoko Akaboshi who assembled a truly wonderful group of players to play koto (Sumie Kaneko and Sumie Kaneko), shamisen (Sumie Kaneko), shinobue (Kaoru Watanabe), shakuhachi (Zac Zinger), kokyū (Kuniko Obina) and tonkori (Nobuhiko Chiba).
Every single one of the musicians who played these instruments are masters in their craft, and it was an absolute joy to collaborate with them in making sure my music was idiomatic to their instrument.
What are the challenges of integrating traditional Japanese instruments with orchestral arrangements?
The challenge came mainly from the reality of trying to blend instruments that were not made to all play the same type of music! Traditional Japanese string instruments such as kokyū, tonkori, shamisen and koto are typically tuned to pentatonic scales traditionally used in Japan; some of these instruments have, for technical, practical and cultural reasons, limited harmonic movement, such as one would need to in typical western-style music.
Incorporating them within my compositions required a great deal of ingenuity on the player’s part and flexibility on my part. As far as wind instruments go, they might not be tuned (or performed) at the same exact frequency (or with the same reference pitch, such as A440) as a classical orchestra. Again here, I relied on the players' skills at adapting the music so that it would provide the emotional response I was looking for, while being mindful of the traditions I didn't want to disrespect.
Recording Shifting Perspectives at Bunker Studios NYC
Were you inspired by any artists or soundtracks in particular when you were creating the album?
There is so much wonderful creativity in Japan that it’s hard to point to a specific artist or title as a source of inspiration. As someone who grew up in France, I was strongly influenced by what became available there in the 90s, which was my first encounter — and my first love — with the country and its culture. But the overarching feeling that I wanted to represent was the co-existence between tradition and modernity — and the contrast between nature and spirituality on one end, and industrialization and materialism on the other end (a film like Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke immediately comes to mind).
While writing, I kept visualizing sunset-filled mountainous landscapes with a bustling industrial city in the distance, and how someone would decide to travel from one place for the other in the search for the right life balance. Where does that person end up?
Have you been to Japan? If so, what did you think of it? If not, where in the country would you like to go?
To my great frustration, I have still not been to Japan yet! It’s at the very, very top of my bucket list (as it’s been for 20 years), and I have been looking for the perfect excuse to go. My problem is that I want to experience it fully — not just a week or two!
I want to explore big cities and get lost amongst its tallest buildings and busy crowds, attend music and theatre festivals, be surprised by unexpected snack flavours and experience the best sushi in the world… but also travel up and down the country by high-speed and regional trains to reach the smaller villages, bike along the rice-planting fields, hike in the sun-lit mountains, drive to seaside harbours, and visit multiple islands. We’re talking at least eight weeks! My eyes are full of Japanese dreams waiting to be realised; come to think of it, I may need to revise my plans to something more… realistic.
There’s obviously a big focus on Japan this summer with the Olympics – are you a sports fan? Which Olympic sports do you like watching?
I’m a big sports fan, especially tennis (I’m hoping and looking forward to watching Roger Federer compete at what is likely his last Olympics). As a kid I loved watching whatever they showed on TV back home — athletics, swimming, diving, fencing, table tennis, gymnastics… Back then, the Olympics were the best three weeks of my summer.
Time permitting, this year I’ll follow as much as I can, too! After the year we’ve all had, I can’t think of a better reward and distraction for us all than watching the world’s best athletes aim for the gold!
Listen to all of Jérôme’s tracks on Shifting Perspectives and find more Japanese music in our Sounds of Japan collection. For music to tell your sports stories, we’ve hand-picked a wealth of fantastic playlists as part of our Summer of Sport collection.
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